20 years of Putin: From political unknown to dominant force
New Year’s Eve marks two decades since Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power.
Twenty years ago on December 31, Russian President Boris Yeltsin “stole the millennium“.
The ailing, alcoholic and unpopular leader interrupted the New Year’s Eve celebrations by resigning and proclaiming his new prime minister as “acting president” before a snap vote in March 2000.
The premier was a political unknown – a media-shy ex-KGB colonel named Vladimir Putin who wore oversized, old-fashioned suits and briefly worked as a taxi driver before becoming a city hall official in his native St Petersburg.
The political Cinderella man had a fairy godmother – omnipotent oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who lobbied for Putin.
In 2013, Berezovsky, then an exile, was found hanged in his house outside London – shortly after beseeching Putin to let him return to Russia.
Critics say Putin reversed the democratic reforms of last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
At the dawn of his rule, Putin looked up to Western leaders, volunteered to help the United States‘s offensive in Afghanistan, and told US President Bill Clinton in 2000 that Russia should join NATO.
But Western counterparts never treated him like an equal partner, and Putin gradually changed.
“He is Russia’s best ruler in many centuries,” Dmitri Kiselyov, a TV presenter who heads RT, a state-backed outlet that broadcasts news in dozens of languages, said in February.
Kiselyov lauds Putin’s revival of “traditional values” and lambasts the West.
Yegor Zhukov, a 21-year-old political blogger, has a different perspective.
“The only traditional institution the current Russian state respects and strengthens is its autocracy that never hesitates to break the lives of anyone who sincerely wants to benefit their motherland,” he told a Moscow court that handed him a three-year suspended sentence in early December for participating in protests in July.
In 2018, the nation that stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific had been shaken by protests over municipal elections, rubbish disposal, construction of churches in parks and redistribution of regional borders.
Each protest became politicised and was punished with arrests, convictions and draconian fines.
Some analysts, however, believe protests embolden Putin.
“The protests are strengthening Putin’s ratings because it consolidates around him the public groups that stand against any violent change of power,” Alexey Mukhin, a Moscow-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Failing economy, falling popularity
Critics note that after two decades in power and despite a windfall of petrodollars, Putin and his allies failed to address Russia’s most fundamental problems – its dependence on energy exports, plummeting birth rates and industrial production, brain drain, an HIV/AIDS epidemic and corruption.
“Corruption in Russia stopped being a problem, it became a system,” opposition leader Boris Nemtsov wrote in his 2011 analysis, concluding that Russia’s annual “corruption turnover” amounted to $300bn, a quarter of gross domestic product.
Four years later, Nemtsov was shot outside the Kremlin’s walls.
The 2014 annexation of Crimea disrupted economic ties with Ukraine and brought Western sanctions that further hobbled Russia’s economy and affected its most vulnerable demographic – that also happens to be Putin’s support base – the elderly.
“To a Russian grandma, the sanctions mean less opportunities for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, of course, if she wants them to live in a modernised country, not in a besieged fortress,” Alexey Kushch, a Ukrainian analyst, told Al Jazeera.
But Vladimir Evseyev, a 67-year-old pensioner in the central city of Tver, told Al Jazeera: “Putin wants to preserve peace, but if someone wants to mess with us – he will respond. It’s OK if our pensions are 15,000 rubles ($250), but we don’t want war.”
According to a December survey by independent pollster Levada, 68 percent of Russians support Putin – far lower than the 86 percent approval rating he enjoyed after annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Saving Bashar al-Assad
In 1999, Russia’s presence in the Middle East was reduced to a navy outpost in the Syrian port of Tartus.
Today, Putin plays regional kingmaker.
Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict helped save Bashar al-Assad‘s rule.
“Assad’s regime is saved and, moreover, somehow strengthened. Even in the Arab world, it is unofficially acknowledged,” Aleksey Malashenko, a Moscow-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Putin has also shielded Iran from sanctions, supplied it with arms and helped Tehran complete the Bushehr nuclear power station.
And he is reportedly trying to boost renegade Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar as the war-torn North African nation’s leader – with the help of hundreds of mercenaries.
Reviving a Soviet ghost
Putin’s pet project is the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a Moscow-led free-trade bloc. It includes Central Asia’s economic powerhouse, Kazakhstan, its impoverished neighbour Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Belarus.
Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous nation, is eyeing membership.
It recently let Russia use its airspace, backed Moscow’s anti-Ukrainian United Nations resolutions and signed up for a Russian-built nuclear power plant.
“All these trends make one wonder whether Uzbekistan is giving up its political independence,” Alisher Ilkhamov, a London-based Central Asia expert, told Al Jazeera.
The determination of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych to join the Union led to the Euromaidan protests that toppled him in 2014.
Putin responded with Crimea’s annexation and the backing of separatists in southeastern Ukraine in what Ukrainians see as a bigger challenge to the existing world order.
“This war was not declared only on Ukraine. It was declared on the collective West,” Crimea native and Ukrainian observer Pavel Kazarin wrote in late December.
The Kremlin “is not hiding its final goal – to break old rules and create new ones. The ones that will determine another position of a once-defeated empire.”